Saturday, November 21, 2020

Harriet Alexander Caperton's Sampler # 3: The Civil War

Unusual block from Harriet Alexander Caperton's sampler
Union, (West) Virginia

Previous two posts are about Harriet's family and her quilt. This one gives
us a view of one extended family's misery in Virginia/West Virginia during the war years.

After Lincoln's election in November, 1861, Samuel Rutherford Houston (1806-1887), minister to the local Presbyterians, recorded his worries in Union, Virginia.
"The affairs of the South yet more threatening; the people crazy with excitement. 'Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad.' ....
Newspapers full of accounts about the excitement in the cotton states. A dissolution of the Union seems to be inevitable."
Despite the town's name, the people of Union were decidedly in favor of secession.

Houston's 1846 house shows the town's mid-century prosperity.

Six months later:
"How sad the countenances of mothers, wives, and sisters. 27 young men leave our little village....The saddest day in all my life. Our 108 volunteers left for the perils of war."
Among the young men marching with Virginia's Confederate 108th Regiment was 17- year-old John Caperton, joining relatives like Uncle James F. Preston, a Colonel from nearby Blacksburg, home to the Virginia Military Institute, where John spent some time as a cadet during the war.

Letters to his mother Harriet Alexander Caperton survive in the family papers. Harriet was apparently concerned about John's morals in his first enlistment. He assured her from Richmond soon after he left:
"I have not touched Liquor I have not touched dice and I have not touched cards except once and then I only touched them whilest I was throwing them out of my shelf."
Unknown VMI cadet about 1860
Collections of the Virginia Military Institute

John spent six months at the Virginia Military Institute in 1862 but "Cadet J. Caperton" was expelled for an "outrage" in July:

"Sunday cadets whose names are not given went upon the premises of J. McD. Moore and killed some chickens. These chickens are said to have been killed by these cadets and not by Cadet Caperton. By his own statement it is also admitted by Cadet Caperton that he received these chickens knowing them to have been improperly killed and took them to the Mess Hall representing them to the servant who was to have them cooked, as pheasant. The whole transaction shows guilty knowledge on the part of Cadet Caperton and such palpable violation of property that the Board of Visitors deem it their duty to the Institution to direct his immediate dismissal."
Virginia Military Institute at Blacksburg  Lexington. 
(Thanks Dolores for the correction)

In August he enlisted as a private in the 13th Battalion Virginia, Light Artillery, but by November was back in Union, "sick." He returned to battle in the last months of the War as an Ordnance Sergeant in February, 1865. The family papers include a pass for the slave Lewis (perhaps Lewis Tuckwiller) to join John in Petersburg. John was paroled and went home to the family farm in May, presumably accompanied by Lewis.

John Caperton died October 31, 1867

Within 18 months he was dead at 23. His tombstone in the Union graveyard, like his life, is hard to read. What a heartbreak for Harriett.

John definitely was a Confederate soldier, yet a county history listing veterans does not include his name. Like his father, he remains just outside the picture.

White Thorn about forty years after the Prestons built it.
The 1860 slave schedule shows 22 enslaved people living there.

Caperton papers include letters from John's aunt Sarah Ann Caperton Preston to Harriet. Sarah was husband Gaston Caperton Sr.'s younger sister who'd grown up a neighbor in Union before marrying James F. Preston and moving to White Thorn plantation near Blacksburg. Preston was a rich planter whose father had been a Virginia governor.

James Francis Preston (1813-1862)

James had attended West Point and been an officer fighting in the Mexican War of the 1840s.
He immediately raised Confederate troops becoming a Colonel of the 4th Virginia Infantry.

In 1854 Mary Eliza Henderson (1836-1900) married George Henry Caperton,
brother to Sarah Ann Preston and Harriet's late husband Gaston Caperton.
Mary Eliza spent months living with her sister-in-law at White Thorn in the war's first years.

James Preston in his late forties did not thrive in field life, suffering from the heat and in May "very sick" according to Mary Eliza. He recovered enough to lead his men into the war's first big battle at Manassas Junction in July where he was slightly injured in the arm, bruised, he said, from a bullet. Illnesses continued to plague him.

Harriett received a letter from Sarah Ann five months later that Colonel Preston was "almost entirely well" although suffering from a "severe attack of rheumatism [probably rheumatic fever affecting his heart]...I have a hope of seeing him at home about Xmas." He died at home a month later.

Sarah Ann Caperton Preston (1826-1908 ) in 1862 with the
 body of  youngest son James Francis Preston II. 
 She was already in deep mourning for her husband when her boy died.

Scarlet fever and/or diphtheria seems to have raged in the house. Mary Eliza's seven-year-old died a few days later and then two weeks after his father's death James Francis Preston II died at 22 months followed by a four-year old cousin. Fifty-four children died of diphtheria in the county that year.

Death Record 1862 for two James F. Prestons

Six weeks later Sarah Ann was grieving deeply as she wrote Harriet:

"My sorrow seemed greater now than in the beginning! At first I was without feeling....Oh Harriet there are not many such husbands as mine..."

The month of terrible news from Sarah Ann also included news of "lost slaves" in Union who escaped one Saturday night, including three people from Harriet's father's farm and one from brother-in-law's Allen T Caperton's Elmwood, who unfortunately was captured and jailed. The reporter for the Richmond Daily Dispatch had "no doubt Union men and Yankees had a hand in it."

The stars in Harriet's antebellum quilt may have had no
symbolism at all.

Monroe County had some "Union men" but the majority of the residents were Confederate supporters  opposed to their county being added to the the Union state of West Virginia. 

Raising the Union flag in Wheeling, West Virginia, 1963

Small skirmishes were the rule in an area far from major battles. In 1864 federal troops under General George Crook bent on destroying rail lines occupied the town for a few weeks, looting Elmwood the home of Harriet's brother-in-law Allen Caperton, a Confederate senator in Richmond.

A.T. Caperton continued in politics after the war becoming the first ex-Confederate to become a U.S. Senator in 1875. He only lived a year in office, replaced by Harriet's son-in-law Frank Hereford.

Harriet lived for about 35 years after the war was over, dying with her century in 1899. She is buried with many in her family in Union's Green Hill Cemetery.

My search for evidence of Harriet's Union sympathies has certainly showed
us she had none but what a wonderful quilt and so much detail found
about women's lives in western Virginia over 150 years ago.

The earlier posts:

Caperton family papers are at West Virginia University Libraries:

Two letters from the Prestons are in the library at Virginia Tech:

Laura Jones Wedin is the authority on the Preston family and their plantations and has read letters from the Capertons and published extracts.. Family portraits are from her papers.

See: A Summary of Nineteenth-Century Smithfield, Part 2: The Early War Years, 1861−1862 Laura Jones Wedin  


Dolores said...

Virginia Military Institute is in Lexington VA not Blacksburg. Virginia Technical Institute is in Blacksburg.

Lily Allen said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
kupton52 said...

Just repeating what Delores said earlier...I've lived in Monroe County, WV since 1975. Blacksburg, Va is about an hour away...Lexington is a bit further. Virginia Polytechnic Institute is in Blacksburg. Virginia Military Institute, VMI, is in Lexington.

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