The Burning of Bedford, 1864

By Henrietta “Netta” Lee


As the Civil War progressed, it became apparent that the farms in the lower Shenandoah Valley were an inherent part of the Southern war machine, providing food and supplies to the Confederate army and to Mosby's Raiders, both active in the area. Union General David Hunter, against orders prohibiting such depredations, ordered the burning of three homes in Jefferson County in reprisal for the burning by rebels of a home in Maryland of a member of Lincoln's cabinet.


The New York First Cavalry, led by a Captain William Martindale, first approached "Fountain Rock," the venerable home of Alexander Boteler, this area's Congressman when hostilities broke out. “Fountain Rock,” which stood precisely where the pavilion at Morgan's Grove now stands.  A detachment had already burned to the ground "Hunter Hill," the home in Charles Town of Gen. Hunter's cousin, lawyer Andrew Hunter, who prosecuted the tried John Brown.


Because Alexander Boteler was, by 1864, a member of the Confederate Congress and had designed the Confederate Seal, he and his home were chosen to also serve as an object lesson.  With neither Mr. nor Mrs. Boteler home at the time, the soldiers methodically stacked furniture in the living room, covered it with hay carried in from outside; kerosene was spilled all about, and all was lit.


As the flames wilted the flowers over the balcony railings, either Helen or Lizzie Boteler rushed tearfully into the burning house, unlocked her beloved piano and played part of the piece Eliot's "Thy Will Be Done:”


‘My God, my Father, while I stray

Far from home in life's rough way,

Oh teach me from my heart to say,

Thy will be done.’


She quietly locked the piano and fled, later sitting on a nearby knoll as everyone could hear the piano wire popping in the intense heat. It was about this time, the cavalrymen turned toward nearby Bedford, the home of lawyer Edmund Jennings Lee II, a first cousin of Robert E. Lee.  He was in exile. His son, Edwin Grey Lee, was also away, working in the Confederate Secret Service in Canada. Only Mrs. Henrietta Bedinger Lee; teen daughter Netta, young son Harry; Margaret, a servant; Peggy, the family's most esteemed servant, and their neighbors witnessed the conflagration.


Seeing the destruction of her childhood home - which had parts of the mast of the SS Constitution in its portico columns - and of virtually all private effects brought out the despair - and the lioness - in Mrs. Lee.  She concentrated her fury into a brief letter to this Gen. Hunter, a letter that has become recognized as a hallmark of sublime and eloquent invective.  Unfortunately for Gen. Hunter, the content of the letter was also made known to Gen. Jubal Early, then in nearby Martinsburg. 






Concluding these home burnings were from a direct order, Gen. Early turned his men north into Pennsylvania to Chambersburg "to avenge the atrocities."  When a demand to be paid $100,000 in gold was brushed aside, he gave Chambersburg residents an hour or two to evacuate, after which some 570 structures were destroyed.  Cognizant Hancock and Hagerstown readily complied with a similar demand from Early, as did two more towns he posed this "offer" to: Middletown and Frederick.


One home - three homes - then 570.  The mad arithmetic of war.  Today, the site of Bedford is on the high ground on the west side of Flowing Springs Road, and very close to the north boundary of the auto salvage shop on that land. The bar/nightclub on that property appears to have been built on the foundation of a large, north-south aligned outbuilding, but not the foundation of the main house, which ran east-to-west.


The following is the eyewitness account of the burning of Bedford by the Lee's daughter, Netta, (who, incidentally, would be the first woman to marry inside the newly completed Trinity Episcopal Church).

Following is her mother's letter to Gen. Hunter, which prompted Gen. Early to burn Chambersburg.

Last is a powerful diary entry of Mrs. Lee in old age the day Bedford was sold out of her family.  This diary

entry has the same feeling of William Shakespeare’s “Tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy.


The Goldsborough Family and the editor donated to the Historic Shepherdstown Commission the letter written in Mrs. Lee’s hand, a photo of Mrs. Lee in later life, and a framed painting of Bedford. This painting was by Serena K. “Miss Violet” Dandridge, daughter of Netta Lee's cousin, Danske Dandridge, using Netta Lee's verbal descriptions. All three have been hung in the hallway of the museum. - ED


From "The Diary of Netta Lee," published by The Lee Society, Alexandria, VA, 1925), PP., 29-34, with permission from the Goldsborough family.




"It was the afternoon of July the nineteenth, 1864. Mother had been ill in bed for some days; but on that date she was able to dine with us and later she came upstairs to my room, where I made her take a nap. Harry, then fourteen years of age, was the only other member of the family at home. He had gone to the dairy and with the assistance of two young Negroes had made a freezer of ice cream. At the dinner table, Mother had given permission to do this, provided he did not use up all of the one and only, nutmeg to be found on our side of the Potomac, nor more than one cupful of the last of our sugar. She laughed as she said: ‘How can it be fit to eat?’


"’Well, Harry,’ said I, ‘you bring me a taste if it's clean and you wash your hands.’ So just as Mother awoke from her nap, Harry came running up bearing a cup and a saucer, each containing a helping of very presentable ice cream.


"’Mother, I've brought each of you a taste of my cream. We thought it so good that maybe you would eat a little, just because I made it, you know.’


“Mother barely tasted hers, simply to please the boy, but I ate all of mine. Then Harry left us and Mother finished her nap. I had been writing a letter on my little mahogany lap-desk, purchased from the sutler's store with money given me at Christmas by Mother, and purchased after paying a ‘duty’ of ten per cent. The cup which had held my ice cream was on the floor. Presently a little mouse crept up to it, dipped his paw into the bottom of it and licked it, much as a child would have done . . .


“Peggy (an African-American servant - ED) came to me: ‘Miss Henretta and Miss Netta! Look over to Colonel Boteler's! The house is all on fire and them Yankees is a comin’ right here down the pike!’


“Dear Mother, ill as she was, sprang from the bed and began to dress, saying: ‘I must go to Fountain Rock, Colonel Boteler is South, Mrs. Boteler is in Baltimore; Helen and Lizzie are there alone with Lizzie's little children.’


“We started down the yard, pursued by Harry, calling to us: ‘Oh Mother and Sister Netta! Don't go over there. Those Yankees are coming here. See how they are pointing and looking this way as they come through the toll-gate!’


"’And Mother,’ I added, ‘there comes Virginia Bedinger, as fast as she can run. She would not be leaving them now unless she had bad news to tell us before our enemies arrive. She would stay and help them.’


“Mother paused and then turned back. I feared she would fall, she was so weak.


"’Run children, run servants, and save what you can, but first of all, do not forget your father's command: ‘Should the house ever take fire, save my papers first.'


“Before Father left home, he secured extra-heavy canvas bags with secured padlocks; children and servants knew where they were to be found.


“All did our Mother's bidding; the Negroes and Harry hid them in the weeds and bushes around the garden, far from the house.


"’Run, run, all of you, save all that you can before the enemy arrive,’ cried Mother, as Virginia arrived with the tidings that she had read General Hunter's order to ‘Burn both houses and every outbuilding, allowing  nothing but wearing apparel.’


“My little maid, Margaret, followed at my heels as I rushed to my own sweet room for the last time. I put my gold watch and chain, which was Father's wedding present to Mother, with a few other trinkets in my little writing desk, I turned to Margaret, saying: ‘Here, you keep these, for the Yankees will not take them from you, while they may from me.’


“Proud of her trust, the faithful little girl did keep them safely.   


“Captain Martindale and troopers from the First New York Cavalry arrived and dismounted. Ill as she was, Mother met the Captain bravely at her drawing room door.


"’Madam,’ he said, ‘I have orders from General Hunter to burn this house and its contents and also every outbuilding.’


"’But you surely will not carry out such a wicked order?’

"’Yes, I will,’" he replied emphatically.

"’You shall not burn the house which my Father, a soldier of the Revolution built. What did he, or I ever do to you?’


"’Woman, you must be a fool,’ he replied, ‘Here are my orders; read them; I shall carry them out to the letter.’


“With that he thrust a paper signed by Gen. Hunter, before Mother's eyes, signaling to his men to begin the work of destruction.


“Harry handed Mother a glass of wine which I had sent one of the servants to bring her. She then turned to the servants and to the friends who had hastened to help us, showing them what we most valued. But Martindale ordered them to put down the things they tried to remove, threatening to shoot them. Our handsome Knabe piano, a gift from Father the previous Christmas, had been pulled onto the portico of the drawing room, when the gallant Captain made his men push back this bit of contraband, although I pled for it with tears in my eyes.


“In a frenzy, I turned with dear little Harry and my cousin, the wife of Colonel William Morgan, who were standing near Martindale, when he ordered the boys to desist, and said: ‘We defy you to shoot us, we will not take orders from you.’ The boys were trying to pull a feather bed through a downstairs window. We made a dash for the bed and pulled it out. Alas! A huge cloud of smoke and flames burst from it, compelling us to let go. With a Satanic grin of triumph, the Captain turned to Mrs. Morgan and myself:

‘Now you may go in and get out what you please,’ he said.


“Some of the soldiers were Dutch or Germans, and did not appear to understand a word of English, for as soon as I was in my room and pointed to my old black trunk, in which I kept my party dress, old laces, and jewelry, and asked them to lift it down stairs, they did not seem to understand a word I said, but when I pointed through a window to the back-porch roof, they picked it up and allowed it to fall to the flower-beds below, where the lock and hinges were broken and most of the jewelry and trinkets were stolen.


“There was one little, pale-faced blond fellow whom I shall never forget.  He followed me everywhere trying to help me when he could elude the vigilance of the Captain. One incident made me smile in the midst of my grief and terror. I was standing on the eastern end of the long back-porch on the servant's side of the house, watching a train of straw, just lighted as the flames crept towards me. I stepped back to the pavement, when this young man, with eyes full of tears, came up to me and carefully wrapped my heavy fur cape around my shoulders - on a hot July day, as I was standing between two blazing fires - as if 'twas mid-winter and I was cold. Possibly I was shivering from nervousness.  Both of us smiled, and I took the cape to add to the armful of clothing I had rescued.


“It may be well to record the technique of house-burning.


“I was on the back porch, and looking in the dining-room window, saw the sofa and chairs all piled up where the extension table stood, with a large mantle mirror and pictures upon them. Straw had been thrown under and around the table and coal oil poured over all. The match must have been struck before I appeared, for no one was in the room, yet the blaze was burning rapidly. At last, when flames enveloped every part of the house and the seven outbuildings were ablaze, Mother and I, with a group of kind friends, were standing near the eastern end of the portico, watching the four old columns which supported it, as one by one, they tottered and fell to the ground. Mother was so weak that I was trying to make her lean on my arm, when we saw Martindale approaching with a swaggering air, as if he was proud of his accomplishments.


“Bracing herself, and looking every inch the daughter of a Revolutionary soldier, our brave Mother faced the man, whose eyes quailed before hers.  He began a patronizing tone: ‘Madam, I have come to tell you that I have been obliged to carry out my orders in burning your home; I also wish to offer you my pity.’


"’Stop sir, I command you!’ cried my Mother, stamping her foot. ‘You pity me? I scorn your pity! But listen to me! Do you see the one remaining column about to fall? That, sir, is the last of the original masts of the Federal frigate, Constitution, Old Ironsides. My Father, a brave soldier of the Revolution, built this home after that war. He went in as a boy, young and strong, he came out after serving seven years, weak and broken. He died at the early age of forty-five. Your grateful country has honored his memory by turning me, his daughter, and these my children, upon the world, homeless and destitute. Now you may go, sir. You have done all the harm, of which you are capable; I defy you to do more, and I utterly scorn your pity. Be gone out of my sight!’  “Mother was pallid, save for two red spots upon either cheek. Her eyes were ablaze with righteous indignation.


“The brave Captain quailed under their flash. As he turned and slunk off like a whipped dog. they all left hurriedly appearing to fear that the rebels might see the blaze against the twilight sky and pounce down upon them.”


A copy of the following letter from Mrs. Lee to Union Gen. David Hunter was said to have gotten into the hands of Confederate Gen. Jubal Early whose divisions were at nearby Martinsburg at the time. Gen. Hunter’s unauthorized order to burn Bedford and other homes prompted him to burn Chambersburg and ransom other towns, as the following letters later indicate.  Gen. Early wrote September 4, 1884 to "J. Hoke:" "(After Gen. Hunter) had burned the valuable residences of several citizens in Jefferson

County, I determined to demand compensation, therefore, from some town in Pennsylvania, and in the event of failure to comply with my demand to retaliate by burning said town. The town of Chambersburg was selected because it was the only one of any consequence accessible to my troops, and for no other reason.” – ED. 


Mrs. Lee’s letter to Gen. Hunter, as it appeared in, Millard Bushong’s, "The History of Jefferson County", pp. 233-234.


“Shepherdstown, VA

“July 20, 1864

“General Hunter -- Yesterday your underling, Captain Martindale, of the first New York Cavalry, executed your infamous order and burned my house. You have the satisfaction 'ere this of receiving from him the information that your orders were fulfilled to the letter; the dwelling and other outbuildings, seven in number, with their contents, being burned, I, therefore, a helpless woman whom you have cruelly wronged, address you, a major-general of the United States Army, and demand why this was done? What was my offense?


“My husband was absent - an exile. He had never been a politician or in any way engaged in the struggle now going on, his age preventing. This fact your chief of staff, David Strother, could have told you. The house was built by my father, a Revolutionary soldier, who served the whole seven years for your independence. There was I born; there the sacred dead repose. It was my home and there has your niece (Miss Griffith) who has tarried among us all in this horrid war up to the present moment, met with all kindness and hospitality at my hands. Was it for this you turned me, my young daughter, and little son out upon the world without a shelter?


“Or was it because my husband is the grandson of the Revolutionary patriot and ‘rebel,’ Richard Henry Lee, and the near kinsman of the noblest of Christian warriors, the greatest of generals, Robert E. Lee? Heaven's blessings be upon his head forever! You and your government have failed to conquer, subdue or match him; and disappointed rage and malice find vent on the helpless and inoffensive. Hyena-like you have torn my heart to pieces, for all hallowed memories clustered around that homestead; and demon-like you have done it without even the pretext of revenge, for I never saw or harmed you. Your office is not to lead like a brave man and soldier your men to fight in the ranks of war, but your work has been to separate yourself from all danger, and with your incendiary band steal unawares upon helpless women and children to insult and destroy. Two fair homes did you yesterday ruthlessly lay in ashes, giving not a moment's warning to the startled inmates of your wicked purpose; turning mothers and children out of doors, your very name is execrated by your own men for the cruel work you give them to do.


“In the case of Mr. A. R. Boteler, both father and mother were far away. Any heart but that of Captain Martindale (and yours) would have been touched by that little circle, comprising a widowed daughter just risen from her bed of illness, her three fatherless babies - the eldest five years old - and her heroic sister. I repeat, any man would have been touched at the sight but Captain Martindale! One might as well hope to find mercy and feeling in the heart of a wolf bent on his prey of young lambs, as to search for such qualities in his bosom. You have chosen well your agent for such deeds, and doubtless will promote him.


“A colonel of the Federal Army has stated that you deprived forty of your officers of their commands because they refused to carry out your malignant mischief. All honor to their names for this, at least! They are men, and have human hearts and blush for such a commander! I ask who that does not wish infamy and disgrace attached to him forever would serve under you? Your name will stand on history's pages as the Hunter of weak women, and innocent children; the Hunter to destroy defenseless villages and beautiful homes - to torture afresh the agonized hearts of widows; the Hunter of Africa's poor sons and daughters, to lure them on to ruin and death of soul and body; the Hunter with the relentless heart of a wild beast, the face of a fiend, and the form of a man.  Oh, Earth! Behold the monster! Can I say ‘God forgive you’? No prayer can be offered for you! Were it possible for human lips to raise your name heavenward, angels would thrust the foul thing back again, and demons claim their own. The curse of thousands, the scorn of the manly and upright, and the hatred of the true and honorable, will follow you and yours through all time, and brand your name infamy! Infamy!


“Again, I demand why have you burned my house? Answer as you must answer before the Searcher of all hearts; why have you added this cruel, wicked deed to your many crimes?

Henrietta B. Lee”


Mrs. Lee never did get over the loss of Bedford as shown in this diary entry when Bedford land had to be sold under duress to Mr. David Billmyer, another Shepherdstown businessmen and sometime rival of her late husband:


“This day November 6th, 1880 - The sale is not confirmed, so it is still mine.  This day, Bedford, the beloved home and birthplace of my dear Father and sisters as well as myself and two brothers, was sold.  It has passed  away forever from me. I have shed so many tears in the last ten years that I thought the font was dry. But when my boys came from town and told me Bedford was sold, the sobs came up and my tears gave way. How I prayed that this portion of the wreck of my poor husband’s property might not be kept from me. God alone knoweth. It has not pleased my Father to grant this prayer and I bow submissively and humbly to His will. No tie of earthly goods remain to keep me united to the world. My grasp upon perishable things is loosened and my wearisome journey to the end will be easier, ‘Nearer to thee my God, nearer to thee even though it be a cross that raiseth me.’ Thou hast given me the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet thine hand upholdeth me still.


“Nov. 19th - November winds howl idly by. This evening alone and sadly I turned my footsteps to Bedford. Now Bedford, no more. The house and name dead. As I walked pensively over its once beautiful, now ruined grounds, I wondered what had been the especial sin of my forefathers that it was swept away from the earth with the wave of destruction scarce one stone upon another to tell it had once been a beautiful stately habitation of joy and happiness. My grandfather’s home  and my father’s birthplace as well as mine. And my heart asks: ‘who did sin, this man or his father?’ that their home and memory are swept away from the children of men. Alas who can tell. Perhaps they reject us, but ruin and destruction follow the gift. I sat me down upon a part of the old foundation and wept aloud. Not even a bird heard the sobs as they welled up from my desolate heart. I called each dear familiar name of my childhood but none answered. There was neither voice nor sound.


“I stood in the ruin which was once my angel mother’s room and called the blessed name of mother. But the cold gray sky only heard. I put my arms and faded grief worn cheek upon every tree. My arms encircling the old decaying trunks and, my cheek pressed to the bark as furrowed and almost old as the tree, yet my dear father planted them and in childhood. I rested under their shade or with active and nimble limbs, climbed and sat happily among the branches. Alas childhood! What a brief period. Visitations of dark grief and sorrow have been visited upon me. Such a checkered life that I almost am inclined to doubt I was ever a child. That period is so far away and the flowing shadows of the present so entirely envelope my existence.  Oh why is it that we so cling to life from the cradle to the grave, tears are meted out to us? Has it been so with everyone born on earth? Yes! For all have sinned and sin brings sorrow and death. A beloved house is like a mother’s bosom, go from it afar, yet we can never forget or cease to love and cling to it. Often I wish I was miles and miles away from my scattered and ruined home, but here it is constantly before my eyes, saddened by what it is and what it was.”