Thinking about the Sesqui of Strother’s farewell from the army

Posted on August 9, 2014 by


Strother, the soldier.

Strother, the soldier.

Around 1:30 p.m. (I’m almost to the very minute when posting this), 150 years ago on this day, David Hunter Strother boarded a train at Harper’s Ferry, bound for Baltimore. He was just taking 20 days leave of absence… but ultimately, it sure appears as if he had had his fill of war.

Was it simply because his cousin, Gen David Hunter, saw the writing on the wall and was getting ready to tender his resignation?

From the conclusion of the drive on Lynchburg, there’s a great deal of evidence present regarding Strother’s frustration. Militarily, he demonstrated a belief that all that was possible should be employed against Confederate forces operating in the Shenandoah Valley, yet firmly believed that politics (both being the politicians and those involved in “politics” within the military itself) was severely hampering the efficiency of making war as an army in the field.

Still, armies in a civil war do not operate in an environment in which only the soldiers and the topography play a part. This is particularly critical in my discussion in this post, and I think, most especially with Strother and his manner of dealing with the war at his own doorstep… when it comes to understanding his particular brand of Unionist. I don’t think one can argue against the fact that war becomes even more complicated when one… who is in the “invading” army… is from the very area in which the “invasion” is being conducted.

Now, don’t misunderstand me… Strother, of course, had been at war for more than two years, and had been in the Shenandoah with the Federal army in 1862. He was no stranger to the war in this environment… and with him in the middle of it all. But, by 1864, things were different. It’s ironic, but, in 1862, Strother had clearly described what he thought was necessary to do, in order to see secession crushed. On May 13, 1862, Strother wrote, while near Strasburg:

This state must be ruined utterly and partially depopulated, and its resuscitation must be owing to a new population emigrating from the North. The people that I have seen since the army came in seem to be besotted and incapable of grasping new order of things which must inevitably follow this war. Perhaps when the danger is over and peace established they may revive a little, but my belief is they will not live to any practical appreciation of the change and hence a new people must possess the land.

Strong words, indeed. Yet, even as I stated in my post that tinkered a bit on evaluating Strother, just over a year ago, Strother and his circumstances as a Valley man and a Unionist are very complex. He is clearly a man torn in several different ways. By 1864, was he truly ready to see war waged at the level at which he spoke, in May 1862? I have my doubts.

What might be even more interesting about this is to consider what seems to be some sort of fickleness in what Strother wrote. It’s very interesting to consider that his original remarks were retouched after the war, before they came to see the light of day in Harper’s New Monthly, as early as June, 1866. Of course, in the wake of the war, he expanded on what he originally wrote during the war… and certainly, that isn’t to imply “embellishing”, because I don’t think he did. What might be more remarkable is that it appears he left his “voice”, at different times as it existed during the war, intact. After all, when writing at length… drawing upon a wartime journal… how could a writer of Strother’s abilities not see that he actually revealed a fickle nature? Surely, the opportunity to change it existed. Or… as I evaluate his writings, did I not fully grasp what he was demonstrated in what he wrote?

I’ve sidestepped a bit since his comment of May, 1862, so I’ll get back on track. Consider what he said then, and what he said in July, 1864…

A war of mutual devastation will depopulate the border counties which contain all my kindred on both sides of the question. I would fain save some of them but feat that all will go under alike in the end…

What cost, to “depopulate”, especially when the no-man’s land included your own land… and family? To what lengths was he really willing to go to preserve the Union? Furthermore, considering the way the war was going at this point, in 1864, surely he had thoughts of what things might be like when the war was over. Would it result in a loss of the South? As of 1864, did he see it that way? Did he also see that, if this was the case, how he might be able to return to his home and what life might be like?

Before you answer (even among yourselves), consider his personal encounters with old, prewar friends and acquaintances (and, to be frank, I’m not totally sure one is capable of answering intelligently unless having read Strother’s prewar works). Because of his decision to wear blue and and participate in the very theater in which these people lived, many had since grown to dislike him… some quite bitterly… and even blame him for the situation which they, and others, endured.

Did this truly bother him, or was he simply a callous person? War may have made him a hard person, but reading him and his personal encounters (as well as his sense of humor) before the war, I don’t think he can be judged so quickly and/or coldly. Inevitably, it was his passion for Union and utter hatred of secession and the Confederacy (and what he envisioned it did and would do to his… I’ll say it, yes… beloved land and people) that determined his path, yet it was the people in the middle of it that conflicted the man.

Again, I digress…

On July 17, 1864, Strother noted the telegram received by Hunter that ordered him to “devastate the valleys south of the railroad as far as possible so that the crows flying over would have to carry knapsacks”. Still, this, remarked Strother, “need not involve the burning of houses, dwellings. I have begged off Charles Town from being burnt for the third time.”

Further, with the burning of the homes of Andrew Hunter (cousin), E.J. Lee, and Alexander R. Boteler (with whom Strother had been particularly close in years before the war), Strother was faced with some rather harsh scenarios. “I am sorry to see this warfare  begun and would be glad to stop it”, wrote Strother… and yet, he followed-up by writing, “… but I don’t pity the individuals”. Bold talk, again… but did he mean it to sound as cold as it came across? Consider also, within a week of these incidents when he was told by two doctors, about how this was all his fault

July 18… “Orders given to burn the houses of E.J. Lee and Alex Boteler. Martindale went forward to execute it. His description of the women and the scene is heart-rending.”

July 23… Strother told by Dr. Thomas B. Reed (medical director at Martinsburg), “He says I am blamed for all the severity and burnings of property in the Valley“.

July 31… “Saw Dr. Burkhart refugeeing. He says that I am blamed for the burning in Virginia and that Edward McDonald has declared his intentions to burn the Berkeley Springs property.

Was it purely coincidental that, on August 5, Strother mentioned, to Gen. Hunter, his interest in resigning?

Nearly three weeks of leave, beginning on August 8, gave time for Strother to consider a great deal. Exactly what all was going on in his head during this time, he didn’t make fully clear. After staying at Eutaw House on the evening of the 8th, the following day he got up and went to receive his pay, as a lieutenant colonel, for six months service…

$1101.40. Went to a saloon and drank lager beer – four glasses – abominable. I find the feeling in favor of recalling McClellan is very strong, and I would not be surprised if it prevailed at length.

Though this is part of Cecil Eby’s last quote (in Eby’s book, A Virginia Yankee in the Civil War) from Strother’s wartime experiences, Strother actually returned to the army by the end of the month. Writing while at Cumberland, Maryland, Strother filed his resignation on September 1, citing exhaustion, “from three hard years service in the field”.

Appropriately and professionally, I believe he tap dances around whatever is truly at the heart of his reasoning…


Interestingly, while the above document is the one on file, on September 3, 1864, Strother drafted another letter mentioning that there had actually been a month since he had tendered his resignation to General Hunter (this first resignation doesn’t appear in his file). Even so, in this follow-up, he does elaborate as to his reasons for resigning, stating:

I have contented myself with giving a single good reason for resigning, that of physical exhaustion. This ought to be satisfactory but there are others connected with the good of the service which have weight. I have always thought that Field Officers of the Regiment should be with their men and that the practice to the contrary is very hurtful to the service – as long as my regiment was scattered in detachments I was contacted to hold my commission & do what service I could as a staff officer. When it was consolidated last spring I endeavored to get the Lieut. Colonelcy for our lamented Major Cougar intending to make way for him I was unable to get his appointment & to prevent an incompetent man from getting the commission I held on longer. After our Valley Campaign I saw the Regiment was going to the dogs for want of a competent commanding officer & feeling myself totally unable to take hold of it I determined to resign in favor of a younger more active officer. Lt. Col. McGee has the commission asd is waiting to be mustered.

Strother, the civilian.

Strother, the civilian.

I’m not buying it.

It seems rather convenient for Strother to make this decision, for the fact of the matter is he never served in the field with his regiment… his appointment to lieutenant colonel going back to John Pope’s time in command, prior to the Battle of Cedar Mountain, in 1862. So, again, it appears Hunter avoids any deeper reasoning behind his decision to resign… and, who can blame him, as it just wouldn’t have been prudent to say what he really felt. Then again… am I over-analyzing the man, via his recollections?

No matter the case, having given Strother a good deal of time in this blog, over the course of the Sesqui (I actually started quoting his accounts back into the Sesqui of 1860, in this post), I’m sorry to see his place in the Sesqui timeline come to an end. For him, with this post… the war comes to an end.

That’s not to say, however, that my time giving Strother further consideration has come to an end.