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Letter from a Virginia lady to the Federal commander at Winchester.

By Mrs. Dr. R. C. Randolph.
[The following letter, written in the winter of 1863-4, by a lady residing in Clarke county, explains itself and gives a vivid picture of life in that region during the period of which it speaks. If it had been written some months later when Sheridan was carrying out his wicked threat to “make the Shenandoah Valley such a waste that a crow flying over would be compelled to carry his own rations,” there would have been a still more vivid story of outrage and oppression; but that chapter will yet be written.]

The officer in command the 26th of October may remember the capture of young Thomas Randolph at his father's house. On the Wednesday following, a part of the same command returned by this route, parties from which were visiting the yard and house for some time after the head of the column had gone by. At first their wants were supplied, so far as our present restrictions enabled us to do it; but while handing the “cup of cold water” to some, who, if not politely, at least not rudely requested it, more came into the porch, and turning to one, I asked if he wanted water. “I don't want no water,” was the coarse reply. I said there was no more bread, &c., to offer. The same absence of all courtesy was shown in his second reply--“I don't want no bread.” Well, what do you want? “A shot-gun, and I mean to have it.” With a countenance, tone and manner indicating that he “neither feared God or regarded man,” the sacredness of woman, her delicacy, her helplessness, were thoughts which never seemed to have entered a mind and heart so brutal. She would meet with no respect. Unaccustomed as we are to contact with persons of that stamp, with nerves unstrung by the trials and anxieties of the preceding days, and foreseeing that this was but the beginning, our fears were very evident, and some who seemed to possess the feelings of humanity tried to quiet them, but said they were powerless and could do nothing. Into the house these ruffians came, searched every room, took mattresses and beds from their steads, searched trunks, boxes, wardrobes, bureaus and closets, appropriating whatever suited their fancy — the winter wrappings of Dr. Randolph and my little son, coats, pantaloons (new black broadcloth), knives, candlesticks, &c. Knowing the war that these valiant men have ever waged with colors and buttons, the gray clothes had been placed by a female member of the family without my knowledge [125] between my bed and mattress. For this I was called to account. If every button were a shell, and the poor gray material so much gunpowder to which we intended applying a match in their presence, more indignation could not be expressed, than has ever been by them, at the criminality of any one who should dare to have under his roof these instruments of so much evil.

This set had hardly left before another, to whom they had showed their booty, returned and followed in the steps of their worthy predecessors. At last roused from my feeling of helplessness, I determined to follow, and seeing one more blind to the right and more determined to do the wrong, I asked his comrades, “Do you know whether this man ever had a mother or sisters, or have any of you ever had them?” The allusion to these holy relations caused him to leave very abruptly, and the others followed, after making such appropriations as pleased each one.

I had determined not to mention these most unpleasant circumstances, but on the return of the expedition on Monday evening following, “Coles'” men (now almost as distinguished as Geary's or Pope's, &c.) called and were again suppllied with food; but they insisted on searching the house--“we had Government property.” A mind of the most ordinary perception might believe that the Confederate Government would not make this insecure place a depot either for clothing or arms, and after the experience of the last fortnight no Rebel would seek rest or protection here, where it failed in being a sanctuary for our own sons, who have only once before visited home and loved ones, while the country was occupied by Federal troops. Nevertheless the search was made, and you know not how contemptible it appears to see men in the garb of soldiers searching chambers, closets, garrets and cellars for those trophies which brave men find elsewhere. As an excuse we are taunted with what “the Southern army did in Pennsylvania,” when for two years Virginia, in all her frontier, has been invaded and desolated.

May I tell occurrences upon this place before Lee's army had ever left Virginia soil? I will take it for granted that you are courteous and generous, and will therefore reply as though I had received permission. I will not go back to the horrors of Blenker's passage through this neighborhood, but will confine myself to the last spring and previous winter, and will merely touch upon such things as the searching of Dr. Randolph's person and vehicle; his being met, when performing the duties of his profession, ordered [126] to dismount and give up his horse, and his refusal being met by curses and threats to “shoot” or “cut off his head” (both pistol and sabre were ready for the execution of these threats); of a Sabbath's visit of the drunken soldiery to the neighboring houses, one of them shaking his fist in the face of a niece and cursing her. Prompt information of this was given to Colonel McReynolds, and to his honor be it spoken that though this occurred early in the spring, and they remained until June, there was no repetition of the offence.

I wish I could speak as honorably of our viceroy in Winchester. Three weeks previous to his departure, on Monday, just as the duties and peaceful avocations of the week were about to commence, a large party of cavalry and infantry arrived with a train of wagons the keys of our barn were demanded and we had to endure their presence for six hours, and on their departure the taking off of sixteen wagon loads of wheat and a buggy and horse, in which two young ladies had called to pay a visit. For neither the wheat nor vehicle was any remuneration ever offered. The following Wednesday they returned, demanded the cornhouse key, took all except a very small portion, not a sufficiency for the use of the family, and drove off all of our cattle, oxen and sheep (my little daughter begged for her cow and was graciously given that and another). The air resounded with the cries of the poor creatures until beyond our hearing.

We were told by many that the determination of these ruffians was to burn our house on the following Friday. Nothing was removed, and we quietly waited the execution of a deed which would cast so much glory upon the Federal army. But a few undisturbed days were granted us. On the succeeding Monday several armed men were sent from a larger party to take a saddle, the last remaining. This was achieved; but I can give no idea of the malignity and threats of their leader, who had been appealed to. Until the following Wednesday week some of our neighbors shared these persecutions. On the evening of that day, as night closed in, a hundred infantry and cavalry and four wagons — loaded with “contrabands” --collected from the neighborhood arrived and remained fifteen hours! Six officers lodged in our house and eat at our table; immediately on rising from which, the captain, without even an Indian's sense of honor, commenced the work of spoliation by appropriating a handsome pair of spurs, telling his host he would not protect his property, and giving his men permission to take [127] whatever they could lay their hands on. I will not attempt a description of the scene — their rudeness, their profanity, their entire want of principle, and our indescribable disgust while they were here, or relief when they departed. It is disagreeable and irksome to recall these brutalities, but very right that officers having the feelings of gentlemen should be acquainted with them. Our persecutions would not then have ended had it not been for the sudden appearance of the Confederate army on the next Saturday, the day appointed for another visitation; and no other reason was ever given for the above course except that we did not forswear country, friends, conscience and the truth itself. It is written, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” This is not only an assertion of Holy Writ, and therefore to be believed, but our own experience has proved its truth. With such experience, we may safely leave vengeance with Him to whom it belongeth.

February 24th, 1864

This, sir, is a copy of a letter written to the officer then in command, but laid aside because, probably, our persecutions had ceased, and if so I was willing to “forgive,” if I could not forget, the past; but after numberless calls for food, sixty of them came with great secrecy on the night of the 16th of January. Very abruptly, one stood, with pistol pointed before the dining-room door, and inquired for “menfolks.” Seeing our small and unsuspecting party, however, he withdrew. The door was very naturally immediately locked, but several succeeded him in inquiring for milk and keys, with which they were furnished; notwithstanding they broke every lock to which they had access; fed their horses, and took meat from the very small quantity we now have left for our family and those who depend upon us for their supplies; broke the glasses from the carriage windows; took every instrument the Doctor had — both for teeth and amputation; went into the house of our dining-room servant, whose wife, having moved to Lynchburg, he had followed — though, not knowing when he might return, everything remained as he left it; both Dr. Randolph and myself would have felt ourselves lowered and degraded by looking into or interfering with his little possessions--not so these philanthropists. They broke into his presses and wardrobe, and what they could not carry off was destroyed. It was completely desolated when (just as the day was dawning) we went round to see the work of destruction. You may judge how we (two ladies and two children) passed this night of terrors. Several [128] of the soldiers, if not all, were intoxicated, and the officer could not be found. On the following Saturday a large body passed, and three preceded them; examined the stables, and left before the others came up, who, much to our relief, were not permitted to come in. The three still kept some distance in front; met a physician of our neighborhood; asked if he were armed; told him to throw open his coat, and then one with his pistol ready to fire, and another ready to strike, demanded his watch. He told them there was no use in his resisting three armed men, and they took it, of course — a handsome gold watch, with a hunting scene engraved on each side of the case. After taking it, they refused to let him go in the direction of the officers and force approaching; and we hope this highway robbery would not be sanctioned by those in authority, though there are many proofs to the contrary. For the sake of civilization and humanity, I wish I could say my sketches are ended; but about dusk yesterday evening an alarm was given that Federal soldiers were approaching. Though not afraid, more nervous or disagreeable sensations could scarcely be felt had they been really savages. As usual, every door and shutter were closed; but they again passed on, and we, hoping they would return another way, dismissed our uncomfortable anticipations, and after awhile my mother and my two children began their employments, while I read aloud. About half-past 8 heavy steps were heard approaching the house, and the clanking of swords aroused every slumbering nerve. Down the porch they came, to the door near my chamber, where we were sitting. Admittance was immediately demanded, and on asking who was there, the reply was, “Soldiers! Open the door!” When it was opened, we were confronted by sixteen or eighteen armed men, their leader having as much audacity in his countenance as in his language and manner. “I want something for these men to eat, and I want it directly,” with an effort to get in; but the entry was small, and we were all against the door, so that room for ingress could not be gained without actual force. “Is there an officer?” I asked. “Yes.” “Where?” “Here, I am one.” “Well,” I replied, “I wish when these expeditions do come out they would send a gentleman along.” This was most cutting, and continued to be throughout the visit, though it evidently restrained. Resenting the insinuation, acting very unlike a gentleman, but unwilling not to be thought one, he quickly asked, “Do you mean to insult anybody?” “Do you mean to come into a lady's chamber?” was the response, and feeling the [129] inconsistency of such conduct with the character to which he aspired, he turned to the direction indicated; seemed glad to get to the dining-room fire, and called for ham, milk, tumblers, &c. Finding the men who acted more civilly were really cold, I had the fire made up, and about ten, after having warmed and eaten, they left — their effort to be quiet and gentlemanly being highly appreciated, and we felt thankful to that Being who can shut the mouths of lions. They left the impression, from all we could observe, that Dr. Randolph was the object of pursuit, and we told them without hesitation that he had not returned; that he was visiting his children; and of this I had spoken in all my letters to my son on Johnson's island — never supposing it punishable or criminal to gratify those yearnings natural to all — to behold the faces and enjoy the society of those we love. His visit was not political, but paternal, and in punishing another for the gratification of these affections, that gracious Being is arraigned who planted them in our hearts.

Having finished my long recital, perhaps as disagreeable to me to write as to you to read — certainly more disagreeable to experience — I ask if no protection can be afforded the dwellers upon the roads over which these expeditions pass? Cannot officers, who are not only officers, but gentlemen, be appointed to the van, centre and rear, whose duty it shall be to control and report the conduct of the men and subordinate officers? There are few who have not in their hearts and memories some tender mother, sister, wife or daughter, and I presume you have one or more of these sacred ties. Oh! sir, call up those memories; place them under such circumstances, and let them plead for some protection and respect, even for those who cannot, as I have said, forswear country and friends, conscience and truth. In this address, I have laid aside party, and, as a helpless woman, have presented my cause and the cause of my countrywomen to manhood, in its strength and power — may I not hope in its nobility and generosity?

February 25th, 1864

Long as my narrative is already, it seems there is little probability of its termination, if I continue a recital of Federal visitations and depredations, which I will do, that you may have the opportunity of rectifying abuses and justifying your-self. Our Sabbaths are so often desecrated, that we have not the privilege of carrying the whole family to the sanctuary of God. On the last my mother remained at home, and after a walk of two miles we were informed that the houses of our neighbors were [130] being searched, and knowing that in the dispensation of such favors we were seldom neglected, a rapid return was effected, but the visit had been paid with only the loss of three barrels of corn and two turkeys. My mother, fearing it would all be taken, remonstrated with the officer, and requested his name, as his manner was very rude. Upon his declining to give it she remarked, “Ashamed of your name! I am not ashamed of mine, but am very willing to tell it to any one.” This slight thrust with the small sword of sarcasm, wounded him so severely, that on the following Tuesday a large scouting party was sent out who called took a horse, and pressed on. In the evening, while we were sitting with a party of friends, a body of cavalry rode up and halted in front of the house. Another and another addition was made. “Surely they had come to meet a foe worthy of their steel.” Into the meadow they rode and performed some evolutions; still mystery attended them, until four wagons drove into the lane. Their purpose was then easily understood. The very small supply of corn we had under existing circumstances raised and housed was carried off, the three remaining horses (one of them they returned for old, blind and lame, lest we should inform the Rebels), fifteen turkeys, and nearly all the fowls belonging to our servants. All were excessively hungry; and while the abundance of the North and the wants of the South are flaunted before the public — while we are robbed of that on which we depend for subsistence, and forbidden even to make an honest purchase of necessaries, except under certain circumstances-food is demanded of us wherewith to feed these soldiers of the prosperous North, and it is always given if we have it. “If thine enemy hunger, feed him,” is a divine command. The scene was not a pleasant one, and many wonder how we are supported under such a constant succession of trials. I trust the strength we receive is from above. When they were catching the horses, one old and a pet, I flurted my hand-kerchief in his face, and made other attempts to frighten him beyond the reach of his persecutors, one of whom said, “Put down that handkerchief — jerk it out of her hand!” After they succeeded in taking him, I remarked that they were brave men--two hundred soldiers brought out to a solitary farm-house, to interrupt the quiet and innocent employments of the family, and deprive them of the little which former rapacity had left. Information was called for respecting the movements of the Rebels, which would not have been given had I been in possession of it, hoping [131] I shall never descend to the position of an informant. They then spoke of several having passed here. I replied that I did not consider myself responsible for those who traveled our public roads, or traversed the paths of our plantations; but it would be tedious to enter into the particulars of this and many other experiences.

During the revolution of ‘76, my grandfather, a colonel in the army, being with his command, my grandmother was visited at her country place by a party of Hessians. Her children were sent into the woods for safety, while she remained to give the slight protection of her presence to her house and property. While the work of destruction was progressing, one of the ruffians observed to her, “Where is your Rebel husband, madam?” “Where he ought to be, sir, fighting for his country,” was the brave and patriotic reply--one which has gained for her a name among the matrons of that day, and for more than one of her descendants some public favor. I listened to it in my childhood as to a legend of romance not dreaming amid the security of that far-off time that such days would ever return again. But numberless are the incidents of this present time laid up in faithful memories — as numberless are the pens ready to record them! And for the sake of reputation, had I no higher motive, were I an officer, either Confederate or Federal, I would sanction no such expeditions. The desolations at Brandon are doubtless now presented in every European paper. How many of humbler name, more limited improvements and narrower boundary, are now deserted from the same cause by their homeless and impoverished owners, and as I told one of the soldiers on Tuesday, I believed that those homes in the North, now so secure and unsympathizing, will meet with similar visitations. I cannot say how, when or by whom. Retributive justice is in other hands.

It is said special care is taken to select the property of gentlemen, with the view of lowering their estimation of themselves and humbling them in the eyes of their fellow-men. They who have this object know little of the nature and character of those who are really ladies and gentlemen — not such as are formed by wealth, pride and the grimaces of fashion — but a combination of intelligence, education and refinement of higher principles, gentle independence and modest ease — a stamp which can neither be purchased by wealth, imitated by fashion, or effaced by malice and envy, and so legible as to be recognized by all.

I am not often openly thus warm in my defence of this patrician position, not wishing those over whom I have influence to value [132] themselves upon anything which passes away with the present life, but to form a yet higher standard--one which the pages of God's Holy Word presents for our example; still, when it has become praise-worthy to decry that which certainly has its value, and all would have if they could, I cannot remain entirely silent.

Hoping I may have no cause for adding another page to this already very long letter, I will now subscribe myself,

Very respectfully,

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