Charles T. O’Ferrall remembers the trial of Southern Unionist, Col. John Strother

Posted on December 8, 2014 by


Something I ran across again, just recently… and, a pleasant “revisit” of a couple of my favorite topics (Southern Unionism and David Hunter Strother).

As some may recall, I have mentioned the incident relating to the capture and trial of Col. John Strother in a previous post… as remembered by his son, David Hunter Strother. No doubt a strong and emotional memory for a son.

Charles T O'Ferrall

Charles T O’Ferrall

What follows, however, offers a unique perspective from Confederate (then a sergeant, and then later, a colonel) Charles T. O’Ferrall… who, like the John and David Hunter Strother, was also a resident of Berkeley Springs (formerly, “Bath”), Virginia (W.Va.).

… I heard of the arrest of a venerable and highly-esteemed citizen of my home town. For many years there had lived at Berkeley Springs Colonel John Strother, a distinguished member of the large Virginia family by that name, and the father of David H. Strother, who under the nom de plume of “Porte Crayon” was the author of “Virginia Illustrated,” copies of which can now be found in the libraries of old Virginia families, each worth more than its weight in gold – in fact, priceless.

Colonel Strother was the proprietor of the “Strother House,” a large summer hotel. He had been a colonel in the war of 1812, and had won glory in this second struggle for American Independence; and he was as courtly a gentleman as any knight of old, and he was gentle in manner and as tolerant of others’ views as it was possible for any man to be who had convictions and the courage of them. His heart was always open to the cries of the afflicted and needy, and he grave freely of his substance to every call of charity. He was honored by all and beloved by myriads.

When war clouds began to gather and the heavens to become murky, betokening a storm which would wreck and destroy, as he believed, “the grand fabric of government which he had fought to maintain,” he was greatly troubled, and took his stand on the side of the Union and against secession. His influence was felt in the community, and many, following his example, took the same stand.

Suddenly one night in the early summer of 1861, without a moment’s notice, a company of Confederate cavalry rode into the town and proceeded immediately to the “Strother House” and surrounded it. The officer in command dismounted and demanded admittance. Colonel Strother himself opened the door, and was at once put under arrest and as quickly as possible carried away, without a single word of explanation from the officer except, “We have been ordered to arrest you and take you to Winchester.”

Some days after the arrest I was ordered to appear before a court martial at the cavalry camp near Winchester, “to testify against Colonel Strother.” I obeyed the order and reported, wondering all the time what the charges could be, and what I could testify against this man, who in my estimation was incapable of doing a wrong. I found the court martial in session and Colonel Strother sitting in the tent under guard. I was called and sworn, and these questions propounded to me:

First: “Do you know Colonel John Strother, and if so how long have you known him?”

I replied: “Yes, I know Colonel Strother, and have known him ever since I have been old enough to known any body.”

Second: “How have you regarded him – a Union man or Southern man?” It then flashed upon my mind that he was being tried for disloyalty to the South, and being young and not knowing what the consequence of a conviction might be, I hesitated. I was instantly admonished that I must answer the question and do so promptly.

I replied: “I have regarded him as favoring the Union and opposing secession. “All right,” said my interlocutor.

Third: “State whether Colonel Strother has been active in manufacturing Union sentiment, and whether he endeavored to induce you and other young men to stay out of the Confederate Army?”

Before I could answer the question Colonel Strother said: “Mr. President and gentlemen – I can see that the appearance of this young man as a witness against me is not pleasant to him. I have known him from his cradle; he has grown up under my eye and I have always been his friend and was his father’s friend before him, and when his father died I supported the boy for the clerkship of the court, which he gave up when he joined the Confederate Army. I hope you will let me relieve him of his embarrassment by answering your questions myself. Will you? The President nodded his head, at the same time saying, “We will hear you, but we may desire to examine the young man further.” Colonel Strother thanked the President, and resumed: “Mr. President and gentleman – I am now and have been since our unfortunate troubles began in favor of maintaining the Union and opposed to secession. I have believed and believe now, that the South is engaging in an unjustifiable effort to destroy the Union, and which will, as sure as fate, result in the direst consequences to her. With this belief deeply rooted in me, I have felt it my duty to influence my friends and neighbors in favor of the Union as far as I could, and my advice to this young man, and all others who like him were inclined to join the Confederate Army, was to keep out. How far my influence and advice have been effective, I know not, except I know he did not heed my advice.”

Then, rising from his seat, he surveyed the surrounding field with his eye flashing, and said: “In the war of 1812 my regiment, with me in command, encamped in this very field. I was then engaged in defending the honor and glory of my country. Now, about fifty years later, I am being tried, as I understand for treason. Yes, treason to a government which has set itself up to pull down and destroy the pillars of the government for which I then fought and was ready to die. Treason! I thank you, gentlemen. Proceed, please, with your trial.

Colonel Strother was slow and deliberate in his speech, and on this occasion more so than I had ever heard him. He seemed to weigh every word before uttering it, and then emphasized it as it came from his lips. After the Colonel had admitted all that was charged against him, there was nothing left for the court martial to do but come to their conclusion and report their findings. What further action they took than that which I have related, I never heard; but some days after the Colonel had cut the proceedings short by admitting the charges against him he was released and permitted to return to this home, but from the night of his arrest until the day of his release he had been kept under close guard and under the eye of a sentinel on post.

I have given as near as I can remember, after more than forty years, all that was done and said in that tent where the court martial sat on that bright summer day. The scene was indelibly impressed upon my memory, and I have related, if not verbatim, substantially word for word, what was said by the principal actors. I have not the gift of language to depict the scene as it deserves. It was indeed worthy of an orator’s tongue and a master’s brush. Colonel Strother, who was then approaching four score years, did not live to see the result he predicted.

I have always regarded the arrest, confinement, and treatment of this hoary-headed, decrepit, yet superb and grand man as an outrage upon the instincts of humanity and a shame and disgrace to the Confederate officer who was responsible for it. It smacked more of the days of the Inquisition than the enlightened days of the middle of he nineteenth century. He was a private citizen, holding no official position, who had simply and solely, at his home and among his neighbors and friends, expressed his honest convictions as to the issues between the North and the South. He had committed no overt act; he had not raised his hand against the Confederacy; he had not taken steps to arrest young men as they rode away under his eye to enlist in the Confederate army; he had not furnished money or supplies to the Union. He had done absolutely nothing but express his views upon a momentous question upon which his people were more or less divided and which was being freely discussed by them. His advanced age, his weak physical condition, his military service, his honorable life and his lofty standing all counted for nothing; he was a Union man and had been expressing Union sentiments. That was enough, he must be torn from his home in the dead hours of night, “When ban dogs howl, and spirits walk and ghosts give up their graves,” and carried on horseback thirty-six miles over rough roads, to appear before a court martial to be tried upon the heinous charge of treason, put in confinement or under close guard – humiliated and degraded. Confederate from ‘crown to sole” as I was, I condemned the act when it was done, and now with the wrinkles that the intervening time has traced upon my brow I condemn it still.

From pages 22-25, Forty Years of Active Service, by Charles T. O’Ferrall.