Von Steinwehr comes to Luray

Posted on July 26, 2012 by


Still present in the Shenandoah Valley, Union forces (I can’t help but keep bringing up that Jackson had not cleared the Valley with the battles of Cross Keys and Port Republic) made their presence all-the-more known 150 years ago, over the next few weeks.

Portion of the flag of the 73rd Pennsylvania Infantry showing “honors” related to the July 1862 occupation of Luray.

On July 21, a force (brigade strength) probed toward Luray, and, by the following day, camped on high ground on the south end of that town. Using Luray as a base of operations, regiments continued to probe to the west and south, but, really, that wasn’t the remarkable part of this exercise. Rather, it was that this took place, soon after Pope had issued his general orders.

Of course, it should go without saying… Luray’s Confederate-leaning citizens took no pleasure in this, but Pope’s orders didn’t make it any easier.

While the experience in Luray may not be perceived as quite as drastic as that which occurred across the Blue Ridge to the east, in neighboring Rappahannock County (under Gen. Robert Milroy’s direction), Gen. Adolph von Steinwehr did continue in the spirit of Pope’s orders. Von Steinwehr’s General Order No. 6 set in motion Major William Stedman, of the 6th Ohio Cavalry, to arrest five of the most prominent citizens of Luray, and send them to his headquarters as hostages.

They will be held as long as we remain in this vicinity. They will share my table and be treated as friends; but for every one of our soldiers who may be shot by “bushwhackers”, of these hostages will suffer death, unless the perpetrators of the deed are delivered to me. It is well known that these so-called “bushwhackers” are inhabitants of the district, and encouraged in the cowardly acts by the prominent citizens here.

Taken from their homes, the five were held in the upstairs portion of Nicholas Yager’s home and mercantile, which also served as the Masonic Meeting Hall.

Von Steinwehr

In writing about von Steinwehr and the zeal in which he operated as the officer in charge of the occupation, Confederate veteran Theodore Lauck remembered in years after the war:

Steinwehr… had imposed himself and his staff upon my father’s household, and foraged at his table, and then threatened to rob them of husband and father! Our women were in a terrible state of fear and anxiety, and their teeth on edge, as it were, that summer of 62, and even the sweetest tempered of them rebelled against he nervous strain and their speech was made bitter by the unusual trials.

In that same recollection, Lauck also inserted the comments made by his thirteen year-old sister, Lucie, in a letter written to him, at the time of occupation:

Pa is not at home on account of the Yankees; they took up every male citizen in town about two weeks again, for the purpose of making them take the oath. They kept them in prison for four or five days and finally paroled them to go to their homes until they were called for, and if they went a step put of town they were to be hung. In two or three days they were called for and Pa, with others who were called strong Secessionists, were kept in close prison away from the other prisoners for two days and then they were sent across the river into our lines and if they are ever caught in Yankee lines they will be shot as spies.

Local Henry F. Broyles also commented on the occupation and of the taking of hostages:

When we arrived at Beahm’s toll gate they formed us in line in the orchard and informed us that they were going to shoot us. They did not carry out their threat to shoot us, but marched us to the top of the mountain and turned us over to the provost guard.

Held in a granary and subsisting on rations of “one cup of water and two hardtack per day,” the men were not released for six days. Broyles also recalled that his father had been sick the entire time while confined in the granary and regularly told the Union soldiers, “Shoot me, but spare my boy.”

Of many of those who were held, we can’t say for sure what their sentiments were. Surely, some were clearly aligned with the Confederate cause, but others may have been “on the fence” up until that summer of ’62. As to how many came off the fence after this, we can’t say with certainty, but it sure seems likely that, at a minimum, it had to push many to the brink of tolerance.

On the other hand, there were other locals who took advantage of the occupation, and were quick to voluntarily take the oath of allegiance… no matter how unsure they were of 1) how long the Federals were to remain, or 2) how the secessionists crowd might react in the wake of the Federal departure. Morgan Price was one of those who “insisted on taking the oath.” Even after Franz Sigel’s men (under von Steinwehr) left, Price continued to exhibit his Unionism, piloting the soldiers who were sick and had been left behind, through the mountains and back to Federal lines.

Of course, all this heavy-handed war stuff didn’t go without remark from some key players in the Confederate army; the most well-known coming from Gen. Robert E. Lee. A lesser-known comment came from local Thomas Jordan, who was at the time serving as a Confederate general in the western theater. In a communique to Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, Jordan wrote:

The war is rapidly drifting to the black-flag phase. We cannot escape it if the new system prescribed by Pope’s orders, and already inaugurated in my native county and village is not stopped. We must accept the gauntlet thrown us – accept the war as tendered us, and the sooner the better.” Jordan also referred to Pope as “a modern imitation of the course of Attila, the Hun.”

In short, there was some pretty intense stuff going on in my home county, 150 years ago!

Even so, I can’t help but find it remarkable that, despite the severity of matters that summer, it is not an episode that I have ever known to bubble-up to the surface among folks in the county, when recounting memory of the war. That seems to be reserved for the activities of Phil Sheridan during the “Burning”… who wasn’t present, but who directed Col. William H. Powell to carry out the activities in the county during that episode of the war… but that’s something I’ll reserve for further discussion in 2014.

Sidebar 1: In another recollection of that summer, T.H. Lauck remembered of his sister

I could write a long story of her and her class in telling of how they endured stintings, hazardous risks, and trials of all kinds to be faced in a section of the Valley of Virginia lying so near the Potomac.

Once my sister had to do the honors (?) at her father’s table when Brigadier General Steinwehr imposed himself and his staff upon the household, and had the secret pleasure of giving him a Southern girl’s rebuff when he essayed to kiss her hand, German fashion, upon leaving the table, and caused him to beat a hasty retreat, cursing and fuming at the lack of culture in that land of “barbarians”.

Sidebar 2: While this is quite challenging to reflect upon, I think it’s important not to forget, however, that there were other things that had happened in the months leading-up to that “hard-war summer”… as in the case of the Beylor-Haynes murder, which had taken place on the south end of Luray, at “Boneyard Hill”; in the vicinity of which Von Steinwehr’s men camped.