Telling stories of her ancestors’ stand against Civil War savagery  

She gazes at the unadorned white ceramic bowl, seeing it as a metaphor for the lives of long-dead ancestors, plainly dressed pacifist women who found ways to protect their farms and families during the chaos of the Civil War in the Shenandoah Valley. Kirsten Eve Beachy, a young Mennonite raised near Harrisonburg, learned about her feisty female ancestors when her grandmother told her family stories, often featuring her three-times-great aunt Mag Suter.

Storyteller Kirsten Eve Beachy is a Mennonite raised near Harrisonburg.Cathie Shiff | Rappahannock News
Storyteller Kirsten Eve Beachy is a Mennonite raised near Harrisonburg.

Aunt Mag is the one who, early in the war, stashed the family’s meager cash in a hole outside by the well. And it was she who used the bowl, really a Mennonite-crafted deep pie plate, to save the family’s dwindling supply of flour. When marauding soldiers came to the door demanding their flour, she persuaded them to eat a slice of fresh pie instead.

History is replete with stories of women keeping home fires tended and children fed while their men went off to war. The same was true for women in the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War, where the hungry men of the two opposing armies chiseled away their food stores and carried off their livestock. For Mennonite and Brethren women in the valley, their survival during the conflict was often even more precarious, given their tradition of nonviolence and, in many cases, their continued support for the Union.

Beachy was fascinated by the spirited stories of these women of plain dress and pacifist beliefs, and she soon began interviewing members of other families, seeking clues about how the women had faced the challenges of war. Now a professor of visual and communication arts at Eastern Mennonite University in her hometown, Beachy earlier this month gave a presentation based on her research, “In Her Own Words: Civil War Stories of Brethren and Mennonite Women in the Shenandoah Valley,” to an audience of more than 60 at Willis Chapel, near Huntly.

Her talk sponsored by the Rappahannock Historical Society, Beachy started off by saying she was a “storyteller, not a historian or a student of Civil War history.” She then briefly told the history of these “dunkard” congregations, so called because they believed in adult baptism and often used a pivoting, cantilevered chair to fully “dunk” the congregant. Escaping persecution in Europe, they first arrived in Pennsylvania before the revolution. Soon afterward, some moved into Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, settling principally in Rockingham and Augusta counties.

Her quest for stories soon extended beyond local sources, and, among other documents, she found a rich trove of first-person accounts in testimony related to the Southern Claims Commission. These affidavits were used by Unionist families who had lived in the Confederacy to request reimbursement by the federal government for foodstuffs and livestock taken by Northern troops during the war. Thanks to the document, she realized that troubles for her pacifist ancestors began long before the first shot was fired.

Brethren and Mennonite churches had long taken clear stands against slavery, Beachy explained. However, some dunkard churches became divided as the issue tore the nation apart. It wasn’t long before Southerners were called to vote on secession, and, because voting at that time was not secret, one’s stand was soon known by everyone in the area.

“One wife wrote that the decision to vote yes was a difficult one for her husband,” Beachy said. “He came home upset and never voted again,” Beachy said.

When calls came out for troop enlistment, many of the dunkard men disappeared, some hiding in secret compartments in their homes and thousands fleeing back to Pennsylvania or Ohio. Beachy discovered thrilling stories of a kind of underground railroad that operated through the valley, in which Mennonite and Brethren families gave refuge to and provisioned escaped slaves and draft evaders on their way north. Dunkard women played active roles in these dangerous activities, which have been characterized as “the largest act of collective defiance ever carried out by Mennonites in the U.S.,” she said.

Like Beachy’s female ancestors, the wives of the departed men were now on their own to protect the family’s crops and livestock. “Young men at war are always hungry, especially for bread,” one woman wrote. “So we baked our loaves at night and hid them.”

Beachy discovered a story in which a Brethren woman turned away hungry soldiers by showing them the butcher knife she had hidden in the folds of her skirt. “She didn’t believe in taking up arms for war, but she saw nothing wrong with protecting her food,” Beachy said, grinning. Another of her ancestors brought her family’s three horses into the house to secure them from Confederate soldiers. After she threatened the troops with boiling water, they burned down her house. Escaping through the back door, she hid with the horses in the woods.

The situation became even more desperate during the “burning of the valley,” when for two weeks in the fall of 1864 Union forces under Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan were ordered to destroy crops and kill or drive away livestock in order to break the spirit of the Confederacy. The campaign also included the wholesale burning of barns and mills throughout the region, and smoke filled the valley for days. The farms of widows were to be spared, and dunkard families were sometimes able to save their barns, or at least their stores of supplies, by proving the loyalty of their men to the Union. However, dunkard mills were still put to the torch, and their crops and livestock were confiscated or destroyed. “They were wicked people,” one Mennonite woman wrote.

Soon the war was over, and the dunkard men began to return to their valley farms. But the privations continued. “Hard times followed after the war,” Beachy said. “Many claims by Mennonite and Brethren families for reimbursement from the government were not filled or were only partially filled.” They also faced hostile neighbors who remembered their lack of support for the Southern cause. The result was, in some cases, a diaspora of dunkard families to the west, many to Kansas.

An active member of the Shalom Mennonite Congregation in Harrisonburg, Kristen says her research continues. “This pie plate made it through the war because of one of my women ancestors,” she said. “To honor her and the other brave women, the least I can do is collect their stories and tell them in their own words.”