Preparing for War in Charles Town, 1861

By David Hunter Strother (“Porte Crayon”) (1816-1888)


David Hunter Strother’s name was once a household word in the United States as a writer and illustrator for “Harper’s New Monthly Magazine.”  Born in Martinsburg, he was one of a very few families who took the Union side in the Civil War. His Southern roots and cosmopolitan worldview allowed him, however, to see both the nobility and foibles of the Shenandoah Valley’s people, his people.


Prior to hostilities at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, SC, Jefferson County’s two delegates, Alfred Barbour and Logan Osborne, voted against any motion to secede from the Union.  Residents knew war would be fought here – where the B&O Railroad wandered into Virginia and its capture could paralyze all Union efforts to supply war to the West.  Armies could go into Maryland across the Potomac at Williamsport, Shepherdstown, and Harper’s Ferry, increasing this area’s crucial strategic importance. Having grown more wheat than any of 118 counties in Virginia in 1840, this fertile farm area would become a wartime source of food for both men and horses, like it or not.


Slavery wasn’t the chief issue here, protecting home and hearth was. With enslavement fading away here during the 1850s, as shown in Census records, an astonishing 1600 mostly white males nevertheless enlisted in the Army of Northern Virginia out of a population of some 14,000.  Blacks, such as town barber, Wesley Seibert of Shepherdstown, became camp cook for Company B of the 2nd Virginia Regiment; younger blacks were servants with a young officer; African-American women kept up affairs at the plantations and homes.  A great number attached themselves to Gen. Banks’ Union forces as they moved through the county early in the war; and many able-bodied black men went north to enlist in the Union army after January 1, 1863.  The stubborn presence of African-Americans pressed President Lincoln to confront the issue of enslavement squarely, leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation in September, 1862.


Strother describes in two articles for “Harper’s” how northern newspapers got it wrong about the Southern male as a potential soldier.  He also explores the straightforward reasons guiding a young man’s decisions to enlist into the army.


Men in war, especially together from the same small town, fought for each other’s survival.  


Excerpted from “Personal Recollections of the War,” “Harper’s New Monthly Magazine Monthly,” No. CXCIII, June, 1866, Vol. XXXIII, pp. 6-7, and p. 141.   


“The New York papers speak of the Southern people as ‘effete;’ and there seems to be an impression prevailing generally in the North that the physique of the Southern people is deteriorated by a life of luxurious and dissolute idleness. If the dapper ideologist who entertains such an idea should happen to come in contact with some hardy Southern mountaineer carrying a hundred and fifty pound buck on his shoulder - some stark and sinewy swamper with his swivel of a ducking-gun - some hard-riding Tony Lumpkin of the rural gentry, the preux chevalier of tournaments, cock-fights, and quarter-races, he would presently find out who was ‘effete.’




“There is probably not a population to be found who, by their habits of life, occupation, and amusements, are better fitted for soldiers than that of the Southern States. Horses and firearms are their playthings from childhood. Impatient of the restraints of school houses and work shops they seek life and pleasure in the soil, and thus early learn the topography of nature, the ways of the fields and forests, swamps, and mountains. Their social and political life, but little restrained by law or usage, develops a vigorous individuality. For the most part, ignorant of the luxuries and refinements of cities, they prefer bacon and whisky to venison and champagne. Tall, athletic, rough, and full of fire and vitality, the half-horse, half-alligator type still predominates in the lower and middle classes of the South.”


This account describes the social pressures to enlist in Charles Town. - ED


“While there were still a few men found who stubbornly struggled against the sweeping current, the women of all ages and conditions threw themselves into it without hesitation or reserve. Their voluble tongues discussed the great question as rationally and philosophically as might be expected under the circumstances, while their nimble fingers aided more intelligently in solving the problem of clothing and equipping the hastily levied defenders of ‘God’s glory and Southern rights.’


“Sewing societies were organized, and delicate hands which had never before engaged in ruder labor than the hemming of a ruffle now bled in the strife with gray jeans and tent cloth. Haversacks, knapsacks, caps, jackets, and  tents were manufactured by hundreds and dozens.

The gift most in vogue from a young lady to her favored knight was a headdress imitated from those worn by the British troops in India and called a Havelock. Laden with musket, sabre, pistol, and bowie-knife, no youth considered his armament complete unless he had one of these silly clouts stretched over his hat. Woe to the youth who did not need a Havelock; who, owing to natural indisposition or the prudent counsel of a father or a friend, hesitated to join the army of the South. The curse of Clan Alpin on those who should prove recreant to the sign of the fiery cross was mere dramatic noise compared with the curse that blighted his soul. His schoolmates and companions who had already donned ‘the gray’ scarce concealed their scorn. His sisters, rallied, reproached, and pouted, blushing to acknowledge his ignominy. His Jeannette, lately so tender and loving, now refused his hand in the dance, and, passing him with nose in air, bestowed her smiles and her bouquet upon some gallant rival with belt and buttons. Day-after-day he saw the baskets loaded with choice viands, roasted fowls, pickles, cakes, and potted sweetmeats, but not for him. Wherever he went there was a braiding of caps and coats, a gathering of flowers and weaving of wreaths, but none for him - no scented and embroidered handkerchiefs waved from carriage-windows as he rode by. The genial flood of social sympathy upon which he had hitherto floated so blandly had left him stranded on the icy shore. Then come the cheering regiments with their drums and banners, the snorting squadrons of glossy prancing steeds the jingling of knightly spurs, the stirring blast of the trumpets. There they went - companionship, love, life, glory, all sweeping by to Harper’s Ferry!


“Alas! poor boy, what sense of duty or prudent counsels could hold him in the whirl of this moral maelstrom? What did he care for the vague terror of an indictment for treason, or the misty doctrine of Federal supremacy? What did he know of nationality beyond the circle of friends and kindred? What was his sneaking, apologetic, unsympathetic life worth after all? The very bondsman who held his horse as he mounted for his morning ride seemed to reproach him, as, touching his hat, he remarks, suggestively, ‘Young master, dis hoss of yourn is mighty proud and mettlesome - he would look fine in the cavalry.’ Very well; in two days - more or less - you might see young master in the cavalry, prancing gallantly with the rest of them, a Havelock flapping about his ears, spurs jingling on his heels, the light of manhood rekindled in his eye, and a fresh posy in his button-hole, atoning for his former hesitancy by distinguished seal in the great cause.


“But according to my judgment the greater number of these young volunteers were moved neither by social pressure nor political prejudice.  The all-pervading love of adventure and fighting instincts were the most successful recruiting officers of the occasion. For they had heard of battles, and had longed to follow to the field some warlike lord - so at the first roll of the drum they rushed cheerily from school house and office, counter and work shop, field and fireside, earnest, eager, reckless fellows, marching with a free and vigorous step, sitting their horses like wild Pawnees, most admirable material for a rebellion, just as good soldiers for the Government if perchance the rub-a-dub of the Union drums had first aroused their martial ardor.”