1863: “Full Of Guerrillas And Horse Thieves”

August 28, Friday.

Walked to Sir John’s wife accompanying me part of the way. At the Martinsburg landing saw a young lady. This proved to be Belle Boyd, who saluted me respectfully and held out her hand, which I took kindly. She told me she was going to the Old Capitol Prison. She has been arrested for breaking her parole, having been sent across the lines formerly and forbidden to return…. Saw the railroad gunboats, ironclad cars, armed with howitzers and loopholed for musketry.

August 31, Monday. – Berkeley Springs.

The country outside our lines is full of guerrillas and horse thieves. The staid people in the country wish them to the devil, although their own friends and relatives are among the plunderers. They fear the consequences of the crimes will be visited on their heads. This seems hard at first view, but who started these fellows out with blessings equipment to make war on the their country and their government? Who but these very parents and friends. And now that these very boys turn to them, lousy, itchy, drunken, and demoralized highwaymen, plundering friend and foe in their reckless folly, these parents fear to see them and beg them to come near them no more….

Colonel David H. Strother, journal excerpts.

Painting of a Shenandoah Valley farm by William L. Sonntag (c.1860)

West Virginia and Northern Shenandoah Valley

On June 20, 1863, West Virginia became a state. Formerly, that area had been part of the state of Virginia, so in the formation of the new state, West Virginia seceded from Virginia which had seceded from the Union. So West Virginia seceded to rejoin the Union. Take a moment to think about that political puzzle.

West Virginia’s population leaned more pro-Union, but that didn’t mean everyone liked that idea even though the towns in the northern part of the state were often Union-held and starting points for campaigns into the Shenandoah Valley. Some men and boys from West Virginia left the state and joined the the Confederacy or pro-Confederate partisan groups.

Although the major campaigns through West Virginia or the Shenandoah Valley steal most of the spotlight in the history books, raids, appearances, or disruptions by Confederate or Union cavalry or independent marauders created frequent incidents in local communities. John Mosby, John H. McNeill, John Imboden and others were pro-Confederate partisan or cavalry leaders operating in that West Virginia or northern Valley area, causing plenty of trouble for Union campaigns, regular cavalry, or patrols.

David H. Strother

David H. Strother

A native of Martinsburg, West Virginia, David H. Strother became an “outcast” in his hometown when he decided not to collaborate with his pro-Southern neighbors, friends, and family, and eventually went north to serve with Union armies. Prior to the war, Strother had toured the United States, writing and drawing regional content for famous magazines, working under the pen name “Porte Crayon.”

Strother served on Union generals’ staffs in the Shenandoah Valley, eastern Virginia, and Louisiana during the war, eventually becoming a brevet brigadier general. He kept extensive journals during the war, recording his adventures and insightfully sarcastic observations.

One thing that really stands out in Strother’s writing, especially when he is in northern Virginia is his acquaintance with Union and Confederate civilians, officers, and soldiers. This is reflected in these journal entries as he records an encounter with the infamous Belle Boyd – a resident of Front Royal, Virginia, who spied for the Confederacy.

Historical Musings

Strother unhappily records the devastation wrecked on the region by the partisan bands. Some – started with military intentions – simply devolved into groups of ruffians, fighting for neither side and simply causing trouble for the civilians. While some “ranger” groups were better organized and led, others invited the unprincipled to take advantage of the war situation and lack of law enforcement.

Pro-Union Strother did not have much patience with the civilians who had allowed these ruffian bands to come to power, seeing it as an unfortunate, just punishment for their Southern allegiance. It’s a part of Civil War history often overlooked – how groups which started out as military or quasi-military units of citizen soldiers devolved into lawless bands from lack of leadership, lack of success, or lack of principle.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

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