150 Years Ago This Week: The burning in Loudoun County

December 1864

Winter did not impede military operations in December 1864.

The public North and South knew that Maj. Gen. William Sherman’s Federal armies were somewhere deep in Georgia, probably heading towards the Atlantic coast. In Tennessee, Gen. John B. Hood and the Confederate Army of Tennessee were in front of Nashville, where Maj. Gen. George Thomas had effectively deployed his Union defenders on the hills around the city. The only relatively quiet combat area was the Petersburg-Richmond line in Virginia.

In Washington, the Congress was about to assemble to consider the thorny issues of the constitutional abolition of slavery and reconstruction. The Radical Republicans, a faction in the Republican Party, claimed the seceded states were out of the Union and could only be readmitted on the Radicals’ terms. President Abraham Lincoln held the opposing view that the Southern states had never left the Union, favoring the more lenient plan of reconstruction he had put into effect in Louisiana and Arkansas. There were still calls for negotiations with the Confederate government, and, in Richmond, the Confederate Congress still believed in complete independence as a separate nation.

Both Gen. Hood’s army and Gen. Thomas’ army in Tennessee were in respective positions at Nashville in the first week of December. In Georgia, Maj. Gen. William Sherman’s armies were about halfway between Atlanta and Savannah, and encountered some Confederate resistance approaching a small Confederate prison camp at Millen. Some Federal troops were reported to be moving towards Macon and the Southern prison camp at Andersonville. In Washington, James Speed, longtime attorney friend of President Lincoln from his youthful days in New Salem, Ill., was appointed as attorney general to succeed the resigned Edward Bates.

At the beginning of December, Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, commanding the Union forces in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, sent 5,000 of his troops across the Blue Ridge Mountains into Loudoun County. He had had enough harassment from Lt. Col. John S. Mosby and his Confederate partisan rangers in the valley; now Gen. Sheridan sent his men into the heart of “Mosby’s Confederacy” to hunt them down and give the Loudoun County citizens a taste of “The Burning” recently experienced by the citizens of the Valley. Their orders were “to clear the country of these parties, you will consume and destroy all forage and subsistence, burn all barns and mills and their contents and drive off all stock in the region.” For a week, the Union troops left destruction and desolation in their wake in western Loudoun County.

At the White Pump Drovers Tavern, Federal Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt made his headquarters. Local farmer John Dillon served the Union troopers there from two barrels of hard cider in order to protect his barn from being burned. It worked, and his barn was not harmed when the troopers rode away. Only one residence was reported to have been destroyed: a Mrs. Neer had just served a lunch to the Federals, and their payment after lunch was to burn her home and nearby mill to the ground. The damage in Loudoun County did little to reduce the raids by Col. Mosby and the Rangers; in fact, it had the opposite effect of intensifying the raids and depredations against the Union forces. After a week’s time, Gen. Sheridan ordered his men to return to the Shenandoah Valley.

In Tennessee, Gen. Thomas received numerous messages from Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant, at Petersburg, urging him to attack the Confederates under Gen. Hood. Gen. Thomas insisted that his cavalry was not quite ready for the attack to be made — they lacked sufficient horses — and any attack would be impeded by a severe storm of freezing rain then taking place. In the meantime, in Georgia, Gen. Sherman’s troops arrived, on Dec. 10, at Ft. McAllister, the Confederate defenses south of Savannah. The fort and Savannah were heavily defended by some 18,000 men under command of Lt. Gen. William Hardee, and the Confederates had flooded the rice fields around the fort. The week ended with Gen. Sherman moving his troops into position for an assault on Ft. McAllister.

In Washington, President Lincoln named former Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase of Ohio as the new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, succeeding the deceased Roger B. Taney of Maryland. Sec. Chase had been a political annoyance to the president; as Chief Justice, Mr. Chase would also no longer be a perennial presidential candidate against Abraham Lincoln.

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 194 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.