150 Years Ago This Week: The Sperryville Outrage, Part I

July 1862

On Wednesday, July 16, Napoleon III of France received Confederate commissioner John Sliddell, requesting recognition of the Confederacy and aid from warships in breaking the blockade in exchange for cotton. In the west, Gen. Halleck assumed his new position as general of all U.S. armies. His former command was bestowed upon Maj. Gen. Ulysses Grant. President Lincoln approved measures of the Congress creating the rank of rear admiral for all flag officers of the Navy, and increased tariffs on sugar, tobacco, and liquor.

Near Sperryville on that same July 16, Battery I, 1st New York Light Artillery was encamped. This unit, part of Gen. Sigel’s First Corps d’Armee, commanded by Capt. Michael Wiedrich of Lancaster, N.Y., was recruited mostly of German immigrants in August 1861 from Buffalo That night, Jerry Spades, the black servant of Capt. Wiedrich, and two soldiers, Private Louis Sorg and Private Louis Troest, wandered out of camp. Four miles away, they found themselves at the home of a woman identified in the records only as Mrs. Swindler. She was a widow and had sons in the Confederate Army. The only other occupant of her property was Polly Walker, her black slave. Perhaps believing they could behave any way they wanted in enemy territory without fear of punishment, based upon Gen. Pope’s orders the week before, the soldiers tore apart Mrs. Swindler’s house and outbuildings, taking valuables and destroying property under the guise of “looking for weapons and guns”. This ugly situation turned darker when Polly Walker was raped in turn by two of the three men.

Mrs. Swindler said that the three had come into her yard, asking for cherries then bread and milk. She set a table with bread, milk and honey for the men, and after they had eaten, the three ransacked the house, saying they were looking for guns and weapons. The New Yorkers plundered the house and asked a great many questions. They told her there would be a great number of men arriving to burn the house to the ground. Mrs. Swindler started to leave but they told her if she tried to leave, they would kill her. The men robbed the house, the hen house, the spring house and the garden. They went upstairs and all through the rooms of the house, putting a silk dress and a coverlet on the floor, poured preserves on them and then trampled them. The men took all of the sugar, preserves, and coffee, and then abused Mrs. Swindler for not having more. They raided the hen house and killed most of the fowl but did not take any away with them. Finally, after plundering the house, they went into an outbuilding where they found Polly Walker. Private Troest was the first to sexually assault Polly Walker. She cried and struggled. Pvt. Troest told her he would kill her if she did not stop struggling. When he was finished, Jerry Spades picked up where Pvt. Troest left off, assaulting Polly even before Pvt. Troest walked out of the room. When the black servant of Capt. Wiedrich was done, Pvt. Sorg came in but did not assault Polly Walker. Instead, he plundered the room and ransacked all of Polly’s meager possessions before he walked out. The last thing the three men did was to consume all of the contents of Mrs. Swindler’s decanter and then broke it.

The outrage on Mrs. Swindler and her slave lasted three hours. A Lieutenant Hoffman of the 3rd West Virginia Cavalry and a commissary sergeant named Smith found the three at Mrs. Swindler’s while they were out looking for men who had left camp without orders. Pvt. Troest was found on the porch, eating eggs. They noticed the house had been torn apart, and in the yard they saw a bedding ripped to shreds, and honey poured on all the furnishings. They looked into the knapsacks of the three and found numerous items of household nature, including photographs of the widow’s son and daughter-in-law. Polly led the officer and sergeant into the woods behind the house, where Mrs. Swindler had been hiding. Lt. Hoffman and Sgt. Smith immediately arrested and escorted the miscreants back to camp and held them over for court-martial the following week. Mrs. Swindler and Polly Walker testified for the prosecution.

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.