150 Years Ago This Week: The Sperryville Outrage, part two

July 1862

Following General Orders No. 6, dated July 21, from Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel’s headquarters at Sperryville, a Federal force of about 1,000 troops from the 13th Independent Battery of New York Light Artillery, the 68th New York Infantry and 4th New York Cavalry; the 6th Ohio Cavalry; and the 73rd Pennsylvania Infantry, left their camps at Thornton’s Gap in the Blue Ridge and moved in to occupy Luray.

Some elements of this command went west to occupy Cave Hill and the Shenandoah River ford at the White House on the road to New Market, while others went south on an expedition to Honeyville and the Columbia Bridge. Two companies of Confederate cavalry in Luray were driven away as the Federals moved in to occupy the town. The purpose of this expedition was to prevent any sizeable increase in Confederate forces from gathering to harass Gen. Sigel’s troops based in Rappahannock County.

On Tuesday, July 22, President Lincoln presented to his cabinet the first draft of his proposed Emancipation Proclamation. It proposed that, as of Jan. 1, 1863, slaves in all states then in rebellion should be free. The Proclamation was met with surprise by the Cabinet, and after discussion, President Lincoln agreed that the Proclamation should be withheld until the Union armies had achieved a success on the battlefield.

The same day, a court-martial was convened in Sperryville to try the case of Privates Louis Sorg and Louis Troest and Capt. Michael Wiedrich’s servant, Jeremiah Spades, all of Battery I, 1st New York Light Artillery. Col. James Cantwell of the 82nd Ohio Infantry presided. The charges against the three were absent without leave from camp and “committing numerous depredations on July 16 upon the private property of a Mrs. Swindler, to include a slave woman.” Troest was also charged with rape and Jeremiah Spades with assisting in a rape. Troest was first to be tried; he pleaded guilty to the charges of AWOL and theft but denied the accusation of rape. Mrs. Swindler was called to testify, and she testified on the actions of the three men from the time they first arrived at her home. She stated what the men had stolen and what they had done to her home, furnishings and belongings. Mrs. Swindler was quite specific about the damages that had been done and what had been taken, and the threats they had made against her.

Next to testify was Lt. Hoffman, 3rd West Virginia Cavalry, who, accompanied by Commissary Sgt. Smith, had gone looking for men absent from camp,. The officer testified in detail about what he had seen and heard when he and Sgt. Smith arrived at the Swindler home. Last to testify was Polly Walker, Mrs. Swindler’s slave woman. This in itself was unusual in that the vast majority of Union courts-martial refused to accept testimony of both freed blacks and slaves. Walker explained in detail what Troest and Jeremiah Spades had done to her, and what they told her would happen if she struggled or refused to go along with their sexual assaults on her.

The court adjourned for a day to allow Troest to prepare a written statement, signed by both him and Sorg, which he read before the court when it convened on July 23. In the statement, Troest minimized the assault on Polly Walker but admitted to theft, destroying Mrs. Swindler’s property, and threatening both women. Last to testify was Sorg, who agreed to the charges of committing depredations and injury to the Swindler home but denied he was involved in the rape.

The court adjourned to consider the testimony and the written statement. The court found Sorg guilty of being AWOL and for the vandalism to Mrs. Swindler’s property. He was sentenced to a year at hard labor and forfeiture of all pay and allowances. Troest and Jeremiah Spades were found guilty of both charges as well as the rape, and were also sentenced to hard labor in prison. Col. Caldwell ruled that Mrs. Swindler could apply to the U.S. government for compensation of the damages, but that there was no guarantee she would receive anything, considering that she had sons in the Confederate Army, that she owned a slave, and was a resident of a state in rebellion against the Federal government. There is no record of Mrs. Swindler’s application for compensation.

Roger Piantadosi
About Roger Piantadosi 544 Articles
Former Rappahannock News editor Roger Piantadosi is a writer and works on web and video projects for Rappahannock Media and his own Synergist Media company. Before joining the News in 2009, he was a staff writer, editor and web developer at The Washington Post for almost 30 years.