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Remembering 150th anniversary of the surrender of Charlottesville, UVa to troops under Custer and Sheridan

Remembering 150th anniversary of the surrender of Charlottesville, UVa to troops under Custer and Sheridan

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Union cavalrymen

On March 2, 1865, 10,000 Union cavalrymen led by Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan had swept aside the last major Confederate force standing between Charlottesville and danger. Residents of Charlottesville and the University of Virginia feared what might happen next.

The human harvest of war had gone on for more than three years.

The savage, blood-slick scythe had swung wide at places with names like Bull Run, Cedar Mountain, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. After each convulsive cutting, the crops of carnage arrived in Charlottesville aboard creaking wagons and railroad cars.

During the course of the American Civil War, about 22,500 wounded Confederate soldiers and a smattering of captured Union men were tended to here. Of those, 1,190 died.

Charlottesville hadn't been marred by battle, but many of its citizens had been deeply scarred during the long ordeal. Even the sight of red-tinged straw, pitched and broomed from boxcars where it had cushioned the wounded, could jolt the heart.

Worse yet were the periodic parades of grim-faced men and women moving broken and torn men from the railroad yards to the nearest shade or shelter to await medical attention. Surely some had cradled a head to help with a sip of water, or felt gripping fingers relax as life passed away.

"And now this," some must have thought when learning that 10,000 Union soldiers were bearing down on Charlottesville. On March 2, 1865, Union cavalrymen under the command of Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan had swept aside the last sizable Confederate force standing between the town and likely ruin.

Local author and historian Rick Britton specializes in Virginia history from the 18th and 19th centuries. One of his major areas of expertise is the Civil War, and how it played out in Virginia.

"After Waynesboro fell, the atmosphere here in Charlottesville was grim," Britton said. "Because of the war and the propaganda used in the Confederate media, people believed that everything was going to be destroyed.

"They believed that everything would be taken from them, the University of Virginia would be burned, and the Federals would leave behind nothing but wreck and ruin in their wake.

"The main force comes roughly down Three Notch'd Road — what is now U.S. 250. With flankers out and skirmishers ahead, they're steadily advancing on Charlottesville."

With the road open and undefended, the only thing hindering the Federals’ advance was torturous mud. It had started raining in late February, and the weather had stayed miserable into early March.

"It had snowed a lot the week before, and when it thawed, the ground became a quagmire," Britton said. "The horses in these cavalry columns are churning up the mud on the road until it was literally knee deep.

"The horses were having a hard time getting through, and wagons were sinking up to the axles. It was slow going, and the columns of troops and wagons would have stretched for four to six miles along the road, maybe more.

"Sheridan wrote in his memoirs that his men were so muddy that you couldn't recognize the uniforms to see if they were Confederates or Federals."

The mud could hold the enemy's pace to a glacial crawl, but it couldn't stop the relentless advance. On March 3, fire and smoke marked the Union's steady progress as soldiers destroyed warehouses at Afton, Greenwood Depot and Ivy Station and the railroad bridge over Mechums River.

That same day, the Charlottesville Daily Chronicle newspaper reported that the Yankees "were apt to arrive at any time." The townspeople knew of Sheridan's destructive work in the Shenandoah Valley and expected, at best, rough handling.

A hinge of history was poised to move, and on March 2, members of the UVa faculty made a decision they hoped would turn it in a favorable direction. Their plan was to send out a delegation to meet the enemy and surrender the university to them.

For this last-ditch effort to save the institution, the faculty deputized as protectors of the university three of its most prominent members. They were law professor John Barbee Minor, chairman of the faculty Socrates Maupin and the rector, Thomas L. Preston.

That evening, Minor opened his diary and inked his pen. It was raining again, but he knew the foul weather could only slow the inevitable.

"We may not flatter ourselves that we shall escape the visitation," Minor writes. "Most persons think they will destroy the university. I am not of that opinion, but I cannot avoid much anxiety in consequence of so many having a contrary impression.

"I know not if I myself am safe ... [but] owe it to the university, to try to get protection for it."

The gut-punching dread that the university was in grave danger was not unfounded. On June 11, 1864, Union troops reduced the Virginia Military Institute to a smoldering ruin.

Still, there was reason for hope.

"In 1863, the Union published the ethics of war, calling it the Leiber Code," said retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Duncan Campbell, a student of the Civil War. "It supposedly gave the rules for the conduct of war.

"They were not supposed to burn churches, schools or things of that nature. Yes, VMI was burned, but as Union forces were going into Lexington, they took small arms and cannon fire from VMI.

"So that burning was partially in retribution for that action."

Tipping the scale of fate to the negative was the fact that UVa was second only to VMI in the number of soldiers it contributed to the Confederate effort — about 1,000. And the town itself certainly had helped the Southern cause by becoming a major destination for the sick and wounded — largely because of the medical expertise at UVa and its accessibility by rail.

Charlottesville Mayor Christoper L. Fowler, just three days in office, had made the decision to surrender the city in the hope it would be spared. He assembled a small group of City Council members to accompany him when he rode out to meet the enemy and open the city to them.

Early in the day on March 3, a handful of Confederate soldiers had ridden a short distance west of town to watch for the approaching army. They had agreed to rush back and alert Minor and others as soon as the enemy came into sight.

The lead element of the Union force was under the command of Maj. Gen. George Armstrong Custer. When it reached Stephen's Crossing just west of town on Ivy Road, the spotters galloped back to town to spread the alarm.

When word reached Fowler, he and his small party of city leaders saddled up and rode westward toward the university. Just opposite Carr's Hill, they found Minor and the others already waiting.

The mayor was flying a flag of truce, and Minor had tied a large white handkerchief to his cane. It was early afternoon, and for the next few hours, they looked to the west and waited.

Finally, around 4 p.m., March 3, 1865, Charlottesville's most desperate hour arrived.

It was Friday, the skies had cleared and, with the descending sun just above the distant mountains, the stalwart men saw riders approach.

"A line of skirmishers on horseback come in first, their pistols and carbines drawn, not knowing what to expect," Britton said. "Right after them comes the advance guard led by Custer's chief of staff, Brevet Maj. Gen. Wesley Merritt.

"The mayor takes charge and surrenders to Merritt, presenting him with the keys to the city. He requests that the city and university be spared from violence and vandalism.

"Merritt pledged a guard for the university and said private property would be respected, but Custer had to give final approval. Then Custer comes riding up with his bodyguard and members of his staff.

"With typical Custer flair, they're flying some of the Confederate battle flags captured a couple days earlier during the Battle of Waynesboro. Then, and Sheridan writes about this, a kind of medieval ceremony takes place to formally surrender the city and university to Custer."

Custer readily agreed to the surrender terms with one caveat. "Now, there must be no sniping at my troops," he warns Fowler, who quickly assures him there would be none.

With the surrender worked out to everyone's satisfaction, Custer turned to Merritt and said, "I would like damn well to sleep between a pair of clean white sheets." He would do that at the home of Thomas L. Farish, where one of the most remarkable events of the occupation took place.

Farish, a captain in the Confederate Army, was stationed at Southside when he heard that Union cavalrymen were closing in on Charlottesville. He wrangled a three-day pass and headed home to be with his family.

Along the way, Farish got rid of his uniform and changed into "the garb of a laboring man." The ruse didn't work, and he was captured near Milton by Federal scouts.

The bluecoats, thinking they had nabbed a high-ranking Confederate officer, brought their prisoner to Custer. Ironically, the long-haired general had turned the Farish home at 1201 E. Jefferson St. into his headquarters.

Custer was in the parlor when Farish was marched up the front steps of the house. It was then that Farish's true identity became known to everyone within earshot when his daughter exclaimed, "Oh, Mama, they've got papa."

"At that moment, probably the first thing that went through Farish's mind was that he was done for," Britton said. "He was a soldier in civilian clothes, and could legally be hanged for being a spy.

"Sheridan wanted to hang him, but Custer interceded, and Farish was instead paroled. Col. Alexander Pennington wrote that when Custer later departed, Farish yelled out, 'Custer, as an enemy I hate you. But I love you as a brother.' "

Much speculation has been given through the years as to why Custer showed mercy toward Farish. Campbell offered an opinion.

"You have to remember Custer had been living in that house with that wife and child," Campbell said. "And now, all of a sudden he's going to kill the father?

"That's pretty hard, even for Custer."

Overall, the city and university also were shown considerable mercy. But about a dozen warehouses storing foodstuff and military supplies were burned, as were the Woolen Mills.

The major target, the iron railroad bridge that carried the Virginia Central Railroad over the Rivanna River, was destroyed. Some homes in Charlottesville were ransacked, but not torched.

Because they were more difficult to protect, houses outside the city limits didn't fare nearly as well.

Monticello, which was visited by a large number of Union troops during the short occupation, was treated respectfully.

On March 6, 1865, the Union cavalrymen left Charlottesville with the city largely intact and UVa untouched. That this was Thomas Jefferson's hometown, and his university, hadn't hurt.

"Fowler had made a point of telling Custer that they wanted protection for the university, because it had been founded by Jefferson and would be a benefit for the entire nation, not just the South," Britton said. "And I think even people who practiced all-out warfare, like Sheridan, were already thinking beyond the end of the war.

"The surrender at Appomattox is just a few weeks away, and people are talking about reconciliation. When somebody asked President Abraham Lincoln how he was going to treat the South when the war was over, he said, 'Let them up easy.'

"So, at this point, what good would it have done to burn the University of Virginia? I think the biggest impact of all this was making everybody in Charlottesville and Albemarle County realize that the war was over."



Local lecture and presentation


This week marks the 150th anniversary of the surrender of Charlottesville and the University of Virginia to Union troops.

In recognition of this milestone, local author and historian Rick Britton will present a free lecture and slide presentation about the surrender from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Wednesday at Charlottesville’s Senior Center at 1180 Pepsi Place.

Britton is an award-winning historian specializing in 18th- and 19th-century Virginia history with a focus on the American Civil War.



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